Interview with Raf Epstein, ABC Radio, Melbourne

RAF EPSTEIN, HOST: We are being deluged with content on our devices and that, of course, means that in our homes, we and our children are deluged with gambling ads, ads for junk food and of course, pornography. Gambling and junk food ads - each sector spends about $300 million a year, so it's a big business. Could a government decide to stop them or even limit them? What would actually work and in what way could a government do anything to restrict access to pornography? These are all issues being looked at by the Communications Minister. Michelle Rowland is part of Anthony Albanese's government and as Communications Minister, is responsible in some ways for the ads that are allowed on your devices, and she is definitively responsible for the government's relationship with the ABC. Minister, welcome.


EPSTEIN: Peter Dutton has said that footy time should be family time. We can criticise the Coalition for maybe not having done stuff in the past, but he's right, isn't he? That general sentiment is that we’ve got to get the gambling ads away from the footy people watch as a family. He's right about that, isn't he?

ROWLAND: It’s one of the reasons why we have, as a government, initiated a parliamentary inquiry into this very issue. It's a wide-ranging inquiry that's being very ably chaired by Peta Murphy MP. Part of this is to gather the evidence base, because we actually haven't had an inquiry of this kind for some time. Now there's anecdotal evidence, there's also changes, obviously, in community attitudes. But there's also been changes in technologies and the way that people conduct e-commerce and their various relationships with their devices, and that includes gambling. So, it's very timely that we have this wide-ranging inquiry that is looking into everything from sponsorship, to advertising, to the actual broadcasters. I think the overarching principle here is about harm minimisation and that's what we're very much focussed on. It is, of course, a legal activity. But what are the ways in which we can particularly minimise harms for those who may be more susceptible to those particular gambling harms?

EPSTEIN: I think people would really like a value judgement from a Minister who's responsible for the rules. Do you need evidence to give an opinion about whether or not there's too many gambling ads on during the footy?

ROWLAND: I'm happy to give a value judgement and that value goes to the whole role of government here - to strike that balance and to have that harm minimisation. That is the value we're talking about here. In terms of the mechanism, the implementation, and the effectiveness, we do need that evidence base and we do need to understand where those harms are occurring. There is a new body of evidence that's coming in around the health space that actually hasn't been there before, that we're discovering through this inquiry.

EPSTEIN: That's health around gambling or around junk food?

ROWLAND: Around gambling in particular, and all that has been part of this open process that's being conducted and I think that's really important. So, if you're asking me about my values, it's about harm minimisation. If you're asking how we intend to do it, we intend to be informed by this very comprehensive inquiry. We'll consider it closely, we will act efficiently on it. So, I do want your listeners to understand that this isn't some inquiry that we're going to take and let it gather dust. We are very committed as a government to acting on those harms and keeping Australians safe. That occurs in the online safety space but it also occurs in relation to gambling.

EPSTEIN: Pornography is ubiquitous. I don't know even if you tried, if you could shut it down. I know the eSafety Commissioner's done some work on this. What can a government actually do to restrict access to pornography? That's not as easy, that's not as simple as gambling and junk food ads, is it?

ROWLAND: I'll say up front that there would be no one who wants people who are not of an age, cohort, or not of a particular stature capable of accessing pornography. The reality is it does occur. This is a collective responsibility of governments, of regulators, of civil society. It's an area of increasing concern where technology is enabling this ubiquitous access to all types of content including content that shouldn't be viewed, especially by young people. But there are streams of work going on. The eSafety Commissioner is in particular targeting those aspects of content that are considered to be particularly egregious. Part of their agenda is looking at what the platforms are doing in relation to access to pornography.

EPSTEIN: Is that asking them to self-regulate?

ROWLAND: Part of it is asking them what they are doing to restrict access.  This is quite a common theme within this sector. Industry knows what it is capable of doing. We want to lift the hood and understand what they are capable of doing and hold them to their own terms of service.

EPSTEIN: Does porn work in the same way though? I mean, like gambling ads, the companies behind gambling are the companies behind gambling. Who do you talk to if you're trying to restrict access to pornography?

ROWLAND: Well, you're talking because people are accessing these on particular platforms. People are also accessing them through the sites themselves.  As many of your listeners will know, even if you were to hypothetically shut down part of the internet and access to any particular type of content it would either pop up somewhere else or someone would get a VPN and be able to access it another way. So, part of this is educative as well. I would stress to your listeners, already has a plethora of resources about limiting access to particular sites and particular content that parents might not want to see.

EPSTEIN: That's them doing settings on their own devices and browsers?

ROWLAND: It’s partly that as well, but it's also a serious education piece. I was just with the eSafety Commissioner this morning. This obviously is not a new issue, but the proliferation, the scale and scope obviously has changed. We are very mindful about this as a government, we are considering very closely the Age Verification Roadmap that's been provided by the eSafety Commissioner.

EPSTEIN: Can I ask about age verification? That idea that somehow the site or the provider takes a picture of the user's face and verifies their age through a selfie that is then destroyed, is that a serious prospect? Could we end up having some sort of age verification through the assessment of how old people look when they're accessing?

ROWLAND: That sort of - if you want to call it - biometrics, is certainly one that's been considered in other jurisdictions. But I would point out that if there was an easy solution to this, it would be implemented in the world somewhere right now. It's a massive body of work that the eSafety Commissioner has been working on for some years. What we intend to do in our response, and we will release the Age Verification Roadmap that she has dutifully provided to us, is we're considering it in terms of what other pieces of government work are being done right now. They include in the privacy space.  The Attorney-General in particular has an interest in the data of children that is being collected, used and disclosed at the moment. There's also digital identifier work that's being done across portfolios. Again, just in the communication space within eSafety, it's the work pursuant to the Online Safety Act, which has really only been in operation for just over a year now, enabling the eSafety Commissioner to do their job in holding those platforms to account. So, it's really part of a broader set of work.

EPSTEIN: Michelle Rowland, you're the Communications Minister. I think you're technically my boss. I'm not actually quite sure who my boss is, I don't know how far up it goes. Ita Buttrose and then you, you're the person who deals with the ABC Board. Joe Gersh is now leaving the ABC Board. He was appointed when Malcolm Turnbull was PM. He has said that the ABC needs more conservative voices and he also thinks, and he's a board member just leaving, that the vibe of the ABC is more to the left than the centre-right. Do you think he's correct?

ROWLAND: I note Mr. Gersh's comments and it would be, I'm sure, a great privilege to be a member of the ABC Board. He has provided five years of meritorious service and I thank him for that. I think in response to you, however, it is appropriate for me as Minister, as per the ABC Act and its charter, to be impartial in my comments here.

EPSTEIN: You're allowed to comment on the general content, general political leanings, if you think they're there.

ROWLAND: I’ve make a decision that I will remain impartial here. I will let ABC Board members and the Chair do their jobs. I will let the producers and the good people, such as yourself, do their jobs. It's my intention as Minister to do everything within my remit to ensure the ABC can do that and that includes, as you would have seen in last week's Budget, ensuring that funding stability. I've made a very conscious decision as Minister to act in an impartial way, to allow board members to express, if he's going to express an opinion,  that is a matter for him. But clearly the ABC Act and the way in which these regulations are constructed are designed so that this public broadcaster can be a public broadcaster, not a state broadcaster. I'm very mindful of moderating my comments in relation to that.

EPSTEIN: Michelle Rowland, Communications Minister, part of Anthony Albanese's Cabinet. Thank you so much for coming in.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.